• Victor Varnado: Comedy nerd king

    photo by Anya Garrett

    Victor Varnado is not your typical black comedian, and not just because his skin is far from dark. Determined to prove funny is funny, armed with little more than his wit and smarts, Varnado is about to unleash the Awkward Comedy Show on Comedy Central, a concert special that will change the way you look at the black comedy experience.

    You may know Victor Varnado from his appearances on Comedy Central, Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel Live. His observational style, deftly-written bits and unique perspective as a black albino have established him as a favorite of the national stand-up comedy scene.

    But next month, you can get a more personalized look at Victor’s style, onstage and off, in The Awkward Comedy Show, the performance documentary he conceived and directed, The film, which profiles Victor and four other young black comics (Marina Franklin, Baron Vaughn, Eric Andre and Hannibal Burress), will premiere on Comedy Central on April 9 at midnight. Punchline Magazine recently caught up with Victor to ask him about directing a movie and giving the world a fresh dose of comic nerdiness.

    How did the idea of this documentary/concert film come about?
    It’s actually very silly, how it came about. I was up late one night, I was watching Showtime, and The Original Latin Divas of Comedy was on. And it’s not the best special in the world – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. And I was like, ‘How come they’re on Showtime?’ And I did Premium Blend a few years back, and some people at Comedy Central asked me to submit for a half hour special, and I submitted for a half hour and they turned me down, and I was like, ‘What am I gonna do now?’ Then I was just like, ‘Well, I know how to produce a movie. Why don’t I make my own comedy special?’ And then I figured that the best thing to do, since none of us in the comedy special were big names, would be to come up with some sort of hook. And that’s where The Awkward Comedy Show came from.

    So you have a film background?
    Well, I’m kind of a self-taught filmmaker. I really believe that the way you used to make it in comedy has changed, because technology has changed and the world has changed. There are so many tools in people’s hands right now; there’s shit you couldn’t have done many years ago. I actually went to college with a scholarship for playwriting, but that lead to screenwriting, which also lead me to just learning as much about filmmaking as I could possibly learn.

    I had gotten a job directing a film for Warner Bros. Home Video before, which is a whole different story. It was called Twisted Fortune. It starred Charlie Murphy; Dave Attell was in it, some other people… And then that movie never came out because the producer like, screwed the pooch on his contract with Warner Brothers and screwed everything. So the film got repossessed by a bank or whatever. I didn’t produce that, that was just me directing.

    So you knew what not to do?
    Yeah, by watching him I knew exactly what not to do. (Laughs) But then I have a film festival that I’ve been working with for a while, and I’ve just been making short films on my own for quite a bit. And I was like, ‘I can look at what’s successful in comedy specials, or concert films and documentary films that I like and then I can just replicate or better that…’ Then that’s what I decided to do.

    The Awkward Comedy Show has a unique look and feel, especially when you look at other comedy concert specials. How did you want it to be different from other comedy specials?
    Well, you’re right. The visual style of the movie is one of the things I really wanted to be different. I really appreciated, I would say, Live At The Sunset Strip and Delirious, where the way the film was shot was more like a film. And it really is, one of the biggest parts about it is lighting. Because, in a lot of what they put on T.V. right now, people are pretty much lit as brightly as possible with a front spot. And that just creates a style that like, every comedy special has right now.

    And I really wanted to give you a warmer feeling. Like when you go to a live show, people are not necessarily always lit with just a spot light. You see a much greater range of color. So I wanted to capture that feeling, especially when we’re performing in a theatrical setting. So I’m glad that you noticed that because that was one of the things I was going for. I really wanted it to look like older comedy films and not the stuff that’s, I would say, kinda churned out right now. I mean yeah, on top of all that I had to make it funny, of course. But I wanted it to look as good as it could look.

    You also skipped a concert video staple: audience cutaways.
    There are no audience cutaways because, for one thing, you get a sense of the audience already because the audience is all around the comedians. So you can see the audience from the side, you’re looking over the audience’s heads. It’s more like being in the audience, which is, I think, I great way to experience it.

    And when we screened it at the New York premiere at 92Y Tribeca, it was great. It really was a feeling of being in the audience, where people would be watching the screen and laugh at the same time in the same way that people laughed in the film. Where, when I’ve seen other work on television, it’s not all the time that people laugh. Sometimes people just kind of regard it, because I think when you cut away to shots of the audience it kind of takes people out of just really experiencing the performance.

    So you have four black comedians – Marina Franklin, Baron Vaughn, Eric Andre and Hannibal Burress, and yourself, and I’d consider you all part of the alternative comedy scene. Were you setting out to show what it’s like in that scene for black comics? And do you consider yourself an all-around alternative comic?
    Well, I can be very honest with you. There’s two answers to that, and one is the answer that I will tell most media, and the other is the answer which is of necessity. Here’s the first answer: yeah, that’s what I do. Just like I’ve been outside of every group since I was born. Being a black albino person, I’ve been outside of every group.

    And so, I never fit in this particular style. And what I tried to express, and what we showed in the interview in the beginning of the film, is that to most of the world, if you’re not Chris Rock, or you’re not Bill Cosby, and you’re a black comedian, they think of you a certain way. They’re like, ‘Oh, if he’s not Chris Rock or Bill Cosby, and he’s a black comedian, then he humps chairs!’ That’s what they think. And so, I wanted to bring to light what me and a lot of my friends do, which is, just, slightly different things than what most people think about when they think of black comedians.

    And the OTHER side of that is, I came up with the idea for the movie, and I knew I wanted to do something with my friends, and I figured out oh, then I have to come up with something that fits my friends. And so, it happened to be a category that everybody fell into. So I basically started the idea with two or three people I wanted to do it with, and then I added other people who also fit into that realm. Because initially when I was thinking about this, I was looking at The Latin Divas on Showtime, and I was like, ‘Well I want to put something on television now, because I know I can put together a show with much funnier people. So what can I do to pass that fact that we’re not big names?’ So I had to come up with a concept that could take that place.

    All comics deal with having different levels of success in front of different audiences. There’s a scene in the film where you guys discuss the difference between playing for predominantly black audiences and urban audiences. Do you think this movie plays to your usual audience, or is it an attempt to be seen by a more broad one?
    I think anybody who likes funny will enjoy this movie. It’s not just for a particularly hipsterish audience or anything like that. It’s really for everybody. I think that in the movie, when we were talking about a predominantly black audience and the urban, we were talking about how sometimes a different audience comes to the table with a particular expectation, and if you don’t immediately start fulfilling that expectation, they can turn on you.

    This whole movie is about showing people to just open up what your expectations might be. There could be any style comedy coming from black comedians. I love that Baron [Vaughn] is very much his own theatrical style, and then you’ve got Eric Andre, who’s just nuts…

    At one point Eric Andre fits a whole glass cup in his mouth and drinks out of it. That blew my mind.
    He’s hilarious right?! That’s just who he is. And Marina is just great at being very calm and taking you on these incredible journeys. And then Hannibal is, like, sooo sedated. It’s just amazing how he is onstage. Even in this movie, I don’t think I covered what I’ve seen in terms of black comedians not doing the, quote unquote, ‘expected thing.’

    The movie has animated segments scattered throughout it. Who did the animation and where did that idea come from?
    The idea for that just came from me. I studied animation, and I wanted to include it in the movie if it worked out. And then, I figured out it would be fun to have the comedians, at one point, be speaking to the camera and have them telling a personal story from their lives. I thought that that would be fantastic to do.

    I got this guy Darren Santa Maria and he did a great job. Really, he was the animator, but we had different artists doing each section. So we had cartoonists do the sections, and he would pick apart their drawings and animate them. So each section was a very different cartoonist – except for the opening section, which was me just all doing it myself. I wrote and animated that part.

    How did Comedy Central get involved?
    We started shooting it almost a year and a half ago. So then I started submitting the finished film to festivals. And I also emailed some friends I know at Comedy Central, and I was like, ‘I have this movie that’s finished.’ I shot them over the trailer for it, and they thought it was cool and said they wanted to see the screener. And after we were rejected from our second festival… (Laughs) We got really close to being in South by Southwest, but we didn’t in the end. We got edged out by somebody else. And then I wanted to do Hot Docs, which is a documentary festival. But because we weren’t as much of a documentary as they wanted, we didn’t get in that one. But before we even got that information back, we heard from Comedy Central that they were interested in licensing it.

    And when I made this whole thing, my original idea was to be on Comedy Central. Because I wanted to do it, I wanted everybody to see it. I wanted to get as much of an audience as possible, because I thought it was unique. When I conceived of it, I thought it would be good, but when I finished it, I thought it was way better than my original concept. I thought it turned out just great. I mean I loved the way it looked, I loved the animated sections, but I thought all the comics did such a great job.

    Even if you take away how the movie looks and just focus on the performances of the comics, it’s really interesting, and not like stand-up specials I’ve seen for a while. The variety of the comics and just the style of the comics is not like something I’ve seen on television in a long time. And so, I was really excited about it. In fact, I passed over putting it on Showtime so that I could premiere it on Comedy Central instead.

    Don’t you think nerdiness and awkwardness are considered cool these days, especially in comedy?
    Yeah! I think the first thing I do when I meet a woman is tell her I’m a nerd, and boom! Panties right off. (Laughs) I’m a big nerd. I don’t know if it’s necessarily cool, but my ability to be a nerd actually helped me make this whole thing happen. Like if I wasn’t such a big nerd and I knew technically how to do things, this movie would have never been made.

    There’s no way, because we didn’t have the money. I was doing a lot of things myself. Like, I, with a friend of mine painted the backdrop for the performance. Like I said, I did the animation. I was working back and forth with the editor, and we would talk about very technical parts of the editing because I’m very familiar with Final Cut Pro as well. The editor though, he did the heavy lifting. He’s a fantastic, great guy – Steven Rosenthal, who does a bunch of stuff for Comedy Central as well. But without being nerdy, this wouldn’t even exist. There’s just no way.

    The Awkward Comedy Show premieres on Comedy Central on April 9. DVDs will be available online and in stores on May 4. For more information on the film, Victor and the other comics profiled, check out the Awkward Comedy Show website.

    Brendan McLaughlin

    Brendan is a comedian and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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